The words “meditation” and “prayer” get thrown around a lot in the addiction recovery world. However, these same words can make uncertain newcomers feel like running for the hills. It’s often challenging for people to discern the distinction between religion and spirituality…and it can be even more difficult to ascertain the link between meditative practices and evidence based science. Despite the confusion, meditative practices are not just for the devoutly religious. The benefits of meditation are endorsed by science.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of mindfulness is “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis”. Meditation and, in some cases, prayer, actively work to achieve a state of mindfulness. Why is mindfulness so important? Well, in the arena of addiction recovery, mindfulness is the polar opposite of being high. In other words, mindfulness is a reprieve from the chaos of maladaptive brain functioning. When we are drunk or high, we do not have complete awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and experiences. While we may think our awareness is magnified by a substance, this sense of magnification is an illusion. Drugs and alcohol impair our ability to have a genuine connection with our environment and with ourselves. The progression of this disconnection can lead to interpersonal problems, isolation, and deep emotional pain.
It’s also important to notice that Merriam-Webster’s definition of mindfulness includes the word “non-judgmental”. Becoming mindful means accepting ourselves (and others) for who we are – even in the most difficult or unappealing circumstances. A huge component of active addiction is the concept of “running” or escapism. We run from other people, unpleasant circumstances, and ourselves. We become numb. Mindfulness means reconnecting with ourselves, others, and our experiences in a loving way. It means having a sense of self-worth. When we are mindful, we are essentially validating our places in the world and acknowledging that we are worth the healing that comes with processing our emotions.
The significance of the phrase “moment-to-moment” should also not be overlooked. When we are using drugs or alcohol, we are seeking to escape the moment. This is true even of behavior that seems benign – like having a glass of wine or beer after a tough day at work. While one glass isn’t an indicator of alcoholism on any level, it still substitutes as a coping skill and “takes the edge off” the stress. Rather than processing the stress in the present moment, drinking or using pushes it away. In order to establish a genuine connection with others and ourselves – and to process our emotions in a healthful way – it is necessary to be present in the moment.
The state of mindfulness produced by meditation has many practical applications. For example, it can be used as a grounding mechanism by trauma survivors who are suffering from flashbacks. It can also be used as a calming strategy when facing intense emotions, such as anger or overwhelming stress. In Psychology Today, Emma M. Seppälä, Ph.D., notes that meditation can “decrease pain, inflammation, depression, and anxiety,” and “increase immune function, positive emotion, social connection, emotional intelligence, compassion, brain matter, emotional regulation, focus, memory, creativity, and perspective”.
Despite the proven benefits of meditation, the practice itself can look daunting or even impossible. When conjuring an image in the mind’s eye, it’s typical to picture a Buddha-like figure sitting still for a long period of time. However, this is only one method. There are many other ways to be meditative.
- Walk or sit in nature. The key is to focus on your surroundings rather than the thoughts in your head. What do you see, smell, and hear? What does the ground feel like under your feet? What does the grass feel like under you hands?
- Spend a few minutes deep breathing. Are your breaths coming from your stomach or your chest? If you can’t tell, place a hand on your belly. If your stomach rises and falls under your hand, you are taking deep, calm breaths. If your breathing is coming from your chest, you are taking anxious, shallow breaths. Once you are breathing from your belly, take a few minutes to focus on the gentle rise and fall.
- Come back to your body. Does anything ache? Where is the discomfort located? Notice how the chair feels underneath you. Notice the floor under your feet. Notice how the room looks around you. What’s in the room? Take stock. Can you hear traffic outside the window? Make a mental note of what day and year it is and list a few things you are grateful for in the present moment. Ask yourself if you are hungry or thirsty or have any other immediate needs. Take a few minutes to take care of these needs.
- Keep a journal. Writing helps you to not only be present with your emotions but also to process them. A journal will additionally allow you to look back and reflect; do you notice any patterns that need to be addressed? How have you changed for the better?
- Engage in exercise and yoga. These activities allow you to connect with and care for your body. Physical activity is a healthy channel for negative emotion and stress. It also quiets the mind; when you take a step back from chaotic thoughts and channel them in a healthy way, you return to stressful situations from a calmer, more centered perspective.
- Say a 12 Step Prayer. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but asking the Higher Power of your understanding to help you be more accepting demonstrates that you are actively acknowledging the present moment and seeking guidance to cope with it.
- Practice an activity or hobby you enjoy, such as drawing, painting, photography, sports, cooking, music, dance, etc. These are self-caring actions; you are honoring yourself and the things you love. Taking part in these activities also helps you connect to the present moment, yourself, and others.
When it comes to being meditative or mindful, this list only scratches the surface. Our hope is that it reduces the prevalent sense of anxiety and ambivalence around the practice and makes mindfulness seem more accessible to everyone. Mindfulness is an important element of treatment at the Process Recovery Center. It is a profound facilitator of healing and an important building block for sustainable recovery.
Autumn Khavari is the Process Recovery Center’s web content writer. She received an education in Substance Abuse Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.